Archive for the ‘Current Events’ Category


Antonin Scalia and the Sleep of Reason

September 17, 2014
"Leucocephalus" Phil Hansten

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

“…the gallows is not merely a machine of death, but the oldest and most obscene symbol of that tendency in mankind which drives it towards moral self-destruction.”

Arthur Koestler, Reflections on Hanging

By now most of you have heard that two mentally disabled half-brothers from North Carolina, convicted of a brutal murder of an 11-year old girl, have been exonerated and released. Both Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown spent 30 years in prison for a crime they did not commit; McCollum spent it on death row. This is nothing new, you say. After all, 144 defendants on death row had already been exonerated and released for reasons of innocence. But this case is different in one significant respect.

In 1994, using the McCollum case as an example, Justice Antonin Scalia dismissively (does he have another way of communicating?) rejected then-justice Harry Blackmun’s claim that the death penalty is unconstitutional. But instead of proving Scalia’s point, it turns out that the McCollum case is the perfect example of why the death penalty should be abolished. If Scalia were a reflective thinker rather than a reactive ideologue, he would acknowledge that he was dead wrong on this case, and perhaps consider the possibility that he is wrong about capital punishment in general. Don’t hold your breath.

Justice Scalia refuses to acknowledge that our criminal justice system is fatally flawed in its application of capital punishment. His mind-numbing obstinacy appears to arise primarily from his rejection of incontrovertible facts, but also through his distortion of data. It is truly unfortunate that the longest serving justice on the current Supreme Court is no more capable of rational thought than your raving crazy uncle at Thanksgiving. (I realize that I am venturing into ad hominem territory here, but there are rare times when it seems almost required.)

So how Justice Scalia demonstrate his inability to apply reason to capital punishment? Let us count the ways.

First, Scalia denies that we have a serious problem of putting innocent people on death row. A rational person would look at the now 145 people exonerated and released from death row, and admit that our criminal justice system—one that metes out an irreversible punishment—is badly broken. But Scalia dismisses or ignores the simple fact that we regularly convict the innocent in capital cases.

Secondly, Scalia rants about the failure of death penalty opponents to show him a single case of an innocent person who has been executed. Scalia’s demand is irrational and disingenuous, however, because once a person is executed, efforts to prove his innocence basically stop. There are so many potentially innocent people still alive on death row, that the efforts are focused on them. Moreover there are many cases where the evidence does in fact suggest that the executed person was probably innocent, such as Cameron Todd Willingham, who almost certainly was innocent of setting the fire that killed his 3 children. Rick Perry, the oligosynaptic “hang-‘em-high” governor of Texas, ensured that Willingham would be executed by replacing key members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission just days before they were to hear from a forensic expert who would testify that the evidence in the Willingham case was invalid. Rick Perry… tough on crime… soft on the truth.

Third, Scalia has resorted to an unconscionable distortion of data. In 2007, Scalia wrote in a concurring Supreme Court opinion that the error rate in the American criminal justice system is a paltry 0.027 percent. Nonetheless, as Samuel Gross and colleagues pointed out in their scholarly 2014 paper in the normally staid Proceedings of the American Academy of Sciences, Scalia’s claim is “silly.” Actually, “silly” is a charitable characterization given Scalia’s egregious distortion of the facts. As Gross, et al point out, Scalia committed the flagrant error of taking the exonerations known at the time for murder and rape (which what almost certainly a very small subset of the actual false convictions) and divided that number by all felonies for any crime, including things like income tax evasion. It is a sad day when a Justice of the highest court in the land makes a claim that would earn an “F” on a paper if he submitted it as freshman in a criminal justice class.

Finally, Antonin Scalia has now become famous for claiming that executing the innocent is not unconstitutional. Is Scalia actually saying that we can commit any repugnant and outrageous act as long as it is not against the constitution? Moreover, we do have the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution that prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishments. If executing the innocent is not cruel, I’m not sure what could be possibly be classified as cruel. Vincent Rossmeier stated in Solon, in an understatement of Olympic proportions, that Scalia’s views on the constitutionality of executing the innocent “…suggested a certain callousness…” I would take it a step further: If you are actually arguing that it is okay to execute innocent people, you need some serious therapy, not a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.

Plato knew about people like Justice Scalia, and would have called him a “philodoxer”—defined as a person who is especially fond of his or her own opinions, without having objectively investigated the facts of the situation. We all encounter people like this in our daily lives, and we are all guilty of this failing to one degree or another. We do not deserve, however, to have a flagrant and unrepentant philodoxer on the Supreme Court.

Nonetheless, one does not have to focus on the irrationality of a Supreme Court Justice to decide whether or not we should have the death penalty. If one considers the empirical evidence objectively, an astonishing conclusion appears: A rational person looking at the data on capital punishment in the US would necessarily come to the conclusion that the death penalty almost certainly results in a net increase in the deaths of innocent human beings. You heard that right. Capital punishment most likely increases the deaths of innocents and the reasoning is very simple.

First, there is no credible evidence that capital punishment reduces future murders. Deterrence was debunked in the 1950s by Arthur Koestler (whom I quoted above) in perhaps the most eloquent and penetrating essay ever written on the death penalty, entitled “Reflections on Hanging.” Moreover, a panel of the Committee on Law and Justice of the National Research Council concluded in a 2012 report that the evidence for the death penalty acting as a deterrent has no basis in fact.

Indeed, the available evidence actually points to a “brutalizing effect” which is the term criminologists use to describe an increase in the murder rate in the presence of the death penalty. A poll of leading criminologists found that while only 2.6 percent of criminologists think that capital punishment is a deterrent to future murders, 18.8 percent feel that the death penalty increases the murder rate. These are only educated opinions, of course, but they certainly show that the experts in the field do not support the deterrence effect.

Other evidence adds more embarrassment to the death penalty proponent. It is uncontested that the murder rate is substantially higher in states that have the death penalty than in those without it. And it is also true (as pointed out by Koestler) that the murder rate usually decreases when countries abolish the death penalty. If the data were reversed, we can be sure that death penalty advocates would be citing the figures incessantly. Death penalty opponents, however, are generally willing to admit that these data do not prove that the death penalty increases murders, even though the data suggest it.

Secondly, the evidence that innocent people are regularly condemned to death row is overwhelming. The fact that 145 people on death row have been exonerated cannot be ignored. Moreover, Samuel Gross and colleagues calculated in their recent publication (mentioned above) at least one in 25 people sentenced to death in the US is innocent of the crime for which they are condemned. The conclusion is clear: If the death penalty does not prevent murders but does result in the execution of innocent defendants, capital punishment results in a net increase in the deaths of innocent human beings. There is no other rational way to interpret the data.

I am optimistic that when these uncomfortable facts become common knowledge, the obscene and dehumanizing spectacle that is the death penalty will be no more.


Run for Your Life

April 24, 2013
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Understanding the fascination of the marathon terror

Why do terrorism and rampage killing exert such hypnotic fascination?

Attacks on schoolchildren and marathon fans arouse “horror.” But the actual carnage (5 deaths, many injuries) is eclipsed by Massachusetts’ 334 routine auto deaths (California and ten-gallon Texas rack up an annual 3,000+ each). The news doesn’t even try to report them all, and they certainly don’t hold viewers spellbound for hours of monotonous, inconclusive TV reporting.

Some answers are in plain sight. Terrorism is spectacle. The attacks are designed to catch maximum attention. Many rampage murders are copycat crimes. The killers are in theory “berserk” and out of control, yet often evidence shows they’re aware of, and competing with, previous sensations.[1] This was true of the Columbine killers, and even Adam Lanza, the Newtown killer, compiled data on past rampage slaughter as you might collect baseball statistics. Terrorists deliberately design displays of spectacular death. How excited bin Laden must have been to know that on US TV “his” airliners were still regularly exploding into the twin towers weeks and months after the event. For the terrorist, that film clip powered an ad campaign that changed mental landscapes like the famous Macdonald’s jingles that toddlers recite by heart.

In this respect the Tsarnaev brothers were drawn into the creative mania that brought Barnum and Bailey to your town, or planned the Roman amphitheater’s gala gladiatorial combats, criminal executions, battle reenactments, and “hunts” that slaughtered hundreds of wild animals. We regard those Roman crowds as bloodthirsty primitives, yet terrorist spectacle appeals to the same motives. There’s pity and terror galore, spiced by the insinuation that the danger in front of your eyes is unique, unprecedented, possibly out of control. It could happen to me. The violence challenges police, insurance, doctors, criminal justice: all the technologies that we use to protect ourselves from the reality that we too can—in fact definitely will someday—die. In our imaginative participation, the story onscreen is about “trying out” death or playing dead and being rescued back to life. In the safety of your living room the events onscreen are vicarious and only half-real. But the emotions are doing real work in reframing what’s possible in life and reassuring you that you’re safe.

As the drama onscreen unfolds, our daily grind gives way to vicarious shock at the possibility that we too can die in a freakish moment. But the coverage is staged to allow us to participate vicariously in  heroic rescue from death by hunting down the criminal. The hope is that “one of the biggest manhunts in American history” gives our lives memorable significance. State Rep. John Scibak claimed that the attack “was a different act of terrorism than we’ve seen before,” and “literally and legitimately” shut down Boston. Note that “legitimately”: the word tells us that emergency reactions can be routine false alarms.

But the spellbound spectators aren’t “shut down” at all. “We” form a vicarious posse invited to contribute information, but also caught up in the hunt for an enemy who is now our quarry. Pictures of armed paramilitary police fill every screen. “Suspects” come into focus; overnight they’re pursued into a firefight, killing one enemy and one cop and wounding another officer. There’s vindictive satisfaction in this hunt. [2] We want to believe that death and terror make sense: that an evil someone has violated the sense of “what is right” on which we’ve grounded our personalities since infancy. The killers’ outraged uncle tells the media that his nephew “deserved to die.” Vengeance promises to restore “what is right” even as death has injured it. It’s how we’re built. We demand, and get, “reasons” to reinforce our account of reality.

Finally “we” have the surviving criminal holed up in a boat, wounded, and then in custody. The news reports that he was a sociable college kid, perhaps under the influence of a more hostile older brother. He was also apparently flunking out of school, so the fear of failure and social death may have been a cause of, and/or result of, the lure of terrorist ambitions. All told, a pitiful as well as cruel character.

Media carry our curiosity about criminal motives to Chechnya and, gingerly, to the “war on terror.” Op-eds suggest that the torment of Chechen refugees may have resonated with the Tsarnaev brothers. Whatever the motives, we have on our hands now a pathetic kid whose life is over, even if the we don’t kill him. He enters the poisonous cloud of self-justification and loathing that surrounds infamy.

So the logic of maiming and death ripples outward into the absurd mysteries of denial. In one direction the absurdity of the Marathon as hunt connects to the Euro-American quest for access to the world’s oil riches implicated in so much 20th century bloodshed and still raising havoc in the middle east and the Caucasus. About the time the young Tsarnaev was born in Kazakhstan, I was there doing some work for the Peace Corps and overhearing US officials discussing Kazakh sour crude oil. It was just the beginning.

A recent investigative commission reminds us that the Bush-Cheney “war on terror”not only terrorized Iraq on false pretenses, but also took us into the criminal practice of torture. We know that for many in those anguished regions of the world, Americans have a reputation for viciousness, even if we don’t yet know how that reputation may have affected the Tsarnaev brothers.[3]

But there’s another dimension to this absurdity. Pathetic young men ambitious for heroic self-esteem place ridiculous pressure-cooker bombs at the finish line of a race built around the human need to test the ability of our bodies to outrun death. Paleontologists speculate that early humans found evolutionary advantage in walking upright and the ability to run long distances as effective hunters. Warrior-hunters have long identified with jaguars and tigers. In this context, the marathon is a survival contest, and wittingly or not, the terrorists were joining in, and exploiting, this atavistic hunt.

Step back from the hypnotic anxiety of exploding pressure-cookers, and you begin to sense the pathetic inadequacy of our public chatter to account for the moral daze and tragic suffering of criminals and their blind victims joined in a moment of contemptible folly that cries out for clarity and compassion.

1. For an account of this mentality, have a look at my Berserk Style in American Culture (2011).

2. In Escape from Evil, Ernest Becker argues that human violence springs from our uniquely human death-anxiety. The Ernest Becker Foundation’s website assembles indispensable resources for thinking about violence.  <<



Guns and “Mental Illness”

March 27, 2013
"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

I think it may have started with Wayne LaPierre’s infamous press conference a week after Sandy Hook. In any case, we now here it as a common refrain of the no-holds-barred gun crowd – that the big problem is inadequate enforcement in keeping high-powered weapons out of the hands of the “mentally ill,” since obviously it is the “mentally ill” who perpetrate the mass killings of the type seen in Sandy Hook, Aurora, and dozens of other places around the country. In short, we ought all unite together to make sure no one with “mental illness” has easy access to these high powered weapons, but let them remain freely available for others.

In my view, even apart from the further stigmatization of mental illness this would entail, the policy itself is mind-bogglingly naive.

In the first place, “mental illness” is not a clearly definable condition. Other than a few very rare organic brain disorders, “mental illness” must be diagnosed on the basis of behavior. Therefore, in effect, supporters of this idea are advocating policies that would seek to proscribe allowing high powered weapons getting into the hands of people who have NOT YET behaved in such a way that we would diagnose them as killers.

Oh, but isn’t it true that with just about every person who has perpetrated mass killing people report that the suspect exhibited all sorts of strange and anti-social behavior long before the fact? Of course. But notice that we can only know that all of those behaviors we later recognize as strange and antisocial were actually “leading up to something” AFTER they have led up to something, that is, in retrospect. Thousands upon thousands of people display the same or similar behaviors and remain perfectly harmless.

Are advocates of such policies really saying they want us all to unite prophylactically to keep high powered weapons out of the hands of those many thousands who have been reported to exhibit strange and antisocial behaviors? Given that this would doubtlessly include many hundreds, if not thousands, of NRA members themselves, I rather doubt it.

But, taking them at their word, the complications have only just begun. Let us imagine we have the resources to seriously investigate each case of reportedly strange and antisocial behavior. Whom would we then trust to assess the investigations and decide if that person should be proscribed from gun ownership, and to have weapons in their possession confiscated? Would we trust that kind of power and wisdom to government officials? To mental health experts? To teachers? To police? To judges and lawyers?

Advocates of this approach should ask themselves whom they would trust enough for this assignment, for holding that degree of power over others, potentially including themselves?

I can only conclude that Wayne LaPierre and his followers have not even taken the first step in truly thinking through the implications of what they are advocating. Having it their way, we would very quickly find ourselves defending completely irrational interpretations of “2d Amendment Rights” by totally trampling on 1st Amendment, 4th Amendment and 5th Amendment Rights, creating veritable police state conditions, at best, as our “weapon against weapons.”

A much more reasonable, sensible and workable solution is to cool off a bit and then, with full acknowledgment of the 2d Amendment and the history of its interpretation in our laws and in our courts, begin the process of examining what weapons it make sense for civilians to have in private hands and what weapons it makes absolutely no sense for civilians to have in private hands (though these might still be “owned” by private citizens and accessible in controlled circumstances such as on regulated gun club target ranges.) In the meantime, as I have said in a previous posting, we could impose significant ammunition surcharges and heavy taxation on the weapons manufacturers designated to meaningfully compensate for the undeniable damage to society that all-but-unregulated weapons impose on all the rest of us on a daily basis, similar to tobacco and alcohol taxes designated for cancer care and treatment of victims of drunk drivers.


Rise of the Planet of the Apps

March 2, 2013
"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

Our local paper recently featured a story about our zoo’s cutting edge program that gives iPads to our orangutans, Teak, Bella, Segundo, and Amber. The stated purpose is to provide mental stimulation that helps prevent boredom and depression. Without the slightest sense of irony, the zoo officials go on to explain that “Freedom of choice is critical to their well-being.” Good grief, of course they are bored and depressed. They are prisoners. If the doors were opened I doubt they’d stick around to play with the iPads. A friend suggested that for amusement the orangutans be shown Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Or was that Planet of the Apps?

As I reflected on this my mind turned to my own students, iPads in hand as they chart a brave new world of education. As with the apes, many students have regarded their formal education as a form of imprisonment. No less an authority than Professor A. Cooper gave expression to the general sentiment in his seminal work School’s Out For Summer.  Indeed, like prison, the reward of graduation is to finally “get out.” I suspect this may be as true for doctoral candidates as for high schoolers. Of course, the iPad is being promoted as a form of engagement, which it certainly is. But to what degree is it liberating? We have probably all read critiques of our cyber-age and the anomie it engenders. Are we happier, more fulfilled, living better lives than before? Is cyber community a complement to or a substitute for earlier forms of community?

Framing this in a Beckerian perspective, do the iPads reflect a genuflection at the altar of our new god Technos who has stepped into the void created by the demise of standard brand religious and cultural myths?  Facing myriad problems, insofar as we place faith in anything, we seem to place our faith in technology, even for our orangutans. One of Becker’s most compelling images is that of the philistine, which he borrowed from Kierkegaard. The modern philistine loses himself in the minutia of the daily routine and thereby represses existential anxiety. Does our technology allow us to maintain a distracted existence? Watching my students jump around the internet on their down time, that seems to be the case. I’m always mentally comparing these students to their predecessors in terms of their general awareness of the world and the issues we face. I should hasten to add that I am not talking down today’s  kids. They are simply what I see before me and I suspect the same distracted consciousness exists across generations.

I recently read The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter In A Distracted Time by David Ulin.  He makes the case for reading as a type of depth experience that leads to both a clearer understanding of self and at the same time a sort of negation of self as we turn the reins of our consciousness over to another. It is this sort of dialectical inner conversation between the author and the reader that produces the consciousness of an avid reader, at once adventurous and discriminating. He goes on to analyze the availability of such an experience on iPads, Kindles, and the like. I return here to the freedom of choice offered to the orangutans on their iPads. What is the difference between amusement and insight, between accessing data and entering the mind of another?  Like the orangutans, we are prisoners of a sort, confined by our mortal condition. Unlike the orangutan, our boredom and depression—and I would add here our self-conscious anxiety—is unlikely to be assuaged by the amusement the iPad provides. No, we are a different kind of prisoner and require something deeper. This may seem completely obvious, but I see people losing themselves in the surface components of technology as surely as Kierkegaard observed the philistines of his day. As we chart a course forward, how will we mediate technological change so as to live rich and productive lives? For me, it will entail a self-conscious effort to continue in-depth reading as well as pursuing in-depth conversations that involve eye-contact. Without such a self-conscious effort we may find ourselves more and more like the orangutans, prisoners of a lower order. Okay, enough of that. It’s time to check Facebook.


Flu Shot Resistance – A Symptom of Death Denial?

February 14, 2013
TDF Guest Scott Murray

TDF Guest Scott Murray

Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich has made a career out of studying the cognitive processes that sustain dubious beliefs. There is something about flu season that makes me wish I could combine his work with that of Becker and enlist their aid in a cultural intervention. It seems there is a robust resistance to influenza vaccination despite the potential risks of the flu – a subject rife with extensions into Gilovich’s work. If the flu is so dangerous, what dubious beliefs inspire resistance to vaccination? And a glance at Beckerian thought might raise the question of why the fear of death wouldn’t drive more people to get vaccinated. But a deeper understanding of what death denial actually entails helps inform us why many resist the shot.

We’ve had rather mild flu seasons the last year or so (, but as statistics readily predict, occasionally influenza strains are more potent and many cases of serious flu infection can occur. The cost in dollars – and lives – can be quite serious. So why do some resist influenza vaccination?

Certainly the media, with its drive to fill air time and sell stories that attract attention, is part of the problem. Flu hype sends millions scrambling for a vaccination each year – but the media is known for its hyperbole, slanted use of facts, and even fear-mongering. It’s no wonder, then, that many cautious, critical individuals would see reports of this year’s raging epidemic and dismiss the need for a flu shot. But as Gilovich is insistent in pointing out, we tend to be most critical of that information which does not agree with the beliefs we already possess. As he puts it: “when the initial evidence supports our preferences, we are generally satisfied and terminate our search; when the initial evidence is hostile … we often dig deeper.” (82) In other words, those who suspect media hype and doubt the need for a flu shot may already believe that a flu shot is unnecessary, and be looking for reasons to support this belief.

Is a distrust of the media, with their tendency to overstate or distort facts, sufficient to explain dismissal of flu season severity? Becker might disagree. Cognitive biases are in one respect no different than elbows and thumbs: they’ve evolved to serve a purpose, and where Gilovich leaves off, Becker nicely steps in. Gilovich is a laboratory psychologist, a statistician; he resists the temptation to speculate too grandly on why the human brain comes hard-wired to accept information that supports existing beliefs while remaining doubtful of information that does not. Becker’s focus on death anxiety provides a compelling furtherance of this line of questioning.

Disease and death are deeply connected concepts. Disease is a limiting of life and brings the carefully repressed reality of our mortality painfully to the foreground of our thoughts. It’s no surprise, then, to discover a deep desire to believe that the flu shot is essentially needless. The CDC, in addressing the most prevalent myths that prevent influenza vaccination, have to deal with the ‘argument’ that influenza is only serious for those who are very young, elderly, pregnant or otherwise already ill. Your average healthy person can deal with influenza using natural means – namely, the immune system (

The challenge with this argument is that it isn’t untrue; in fact, the majority of people who come down with influenza nowadays – certainly in the more affluent Western world — survive relatively unscathed. But the problem with the argument is that it isn’t actually an argument against vaccination at all. Just because you can survive the flu does not mean you shouldn’t avoid it, if not only for yourself than for the basic public health service of not acting as a transmitter of the virus to someone who is more at risk of hospitalization or even death due to influenza. So the question persists: if vaccination serves yourself and the community, why resist it?

There are other studies being conducted on what is termed ‘naturalness bias’ (like this one at Rutgers: The result of the study is essentially that some people make bad decisions because of a cognitive bias towards means that feel more ‘natural’ – in other words, if you tell them a kind of tea is a great counteractive agent to influenza, they will drink it, but if you suggest that they get vaccinated, they will find all kinds of reasons to dispute you. Tea is from nature; vaccines are a mysterious, dubious concoction brought to you by the same science that supported cocaine as medicine and DDT as pesticide.

So all kinds of reasons exist to doubt the flu vaccine. What’s in the flu shot, anyway? Many believe that the flu shot can actually get you sick, which is itself a medical misunderstanding involving a combination of known statistical nemeses. For starters, a large number of influenza strains and influenza-like viruses exist, and the vaccine can only protect you against so many. Some argue that this makes the vaccine worthless, when in fact it means that the vaccine is only as good as the severity of the strains it actually protects against. Those concocting the vaccine work hard to ensure it protects against the most severe strains predicted to be active in any given season. Nevertheless, the likelihood that some who are vaccinated become sick soon after is statistically guaranteed given a large enough sample, either because the vaccination didn’t come in time or because those unlucky few caught something the vaccination could not defend against. To these few (a minority, particularly if you establish a clear window of time after vaccination where sickness constitutes a possible response to vaccination), it is not surprising that they feel cheated and suspect that they’ve been had — not only by flu hype, but by flu shot hype.

The other factor in play has to do with anecdotal evidence and word of mouth narrative; it’s a simple tale of how everyone knows someone (who knows someone?) who has ‘gotten sick from a flu shot.’ The CDC is very candid about why this can seem to happen to any who cares to actually read up on it: (

In the light of these cognitive factors that influence these behaviors (influenza vaccination denial and the anti-hype hype), is there a motivational determinant that can be identified? Becker’s theories outline what Gilovich’s work suggests: something at work deeper than cognitive tics, deeper than the prevalence of poor science in pop culture. Isn’t it safer for the psyche to believe that disease is less of a threat? That the body has what it needs to defend itself against death? Don’t flu severity denial – and the cognitive factors that help sustain it – work in the service of protecting the embodied self against the reality of its own fragility?


Gilovich, Thomas. How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. New York: Free Press, 1991.


A Proposal for an American-Specific Gun Policy

January 23, 2013


"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

Lately I have cocked my eavesdropping ear whenever I hear others discussing guns in America. Ideas are flying furiously about how to prevent such events as the recent school massacre in Connecticut, from banning any and all firearms on one side to placing heavily armed guards wherever people gather in public, with a good portion of that public themselves packing concealed weapons, on the other side.

We are scared and want protection against feelings of powerlessness. The depths of our fears are demonstrated by the very irrationality of the proposals. Many people see guns as the problem itself. True, people shoot people, not guns alone. But unarmed people do not shoot people, and therefore the more difficult it is for a potential shooter access to high-powered weapons, the less likely it is such a shooting will occur. Many other people know from experience that guns give them a sense of power. Naturally, they turn even more strongly to the power these weapons render to counter feelings of powerlessness. Here in Illinois, the only state not to have one already, we are considering state-wide concealed-carry policy. This back-and-forth “guns as problem, guns as power” is played out daily in the Letters section of each newspapers across the state.

I do not own a gun, though I grew up with them and earned a turkey or two in my younger years for marksmanship. Sometime around 15 years of age, I just lost interest. Furthermore, I lived for many years in countries with extremely strict gun policies, and there the only people I heard complain about it were folks who I was quite relieved did not have easy access to guns! There, homicides of any kind were only a fraction of what occurs in any one of dozens of US cities each day.

But the USA is something else entirely.  We have a different history, temperament and very different social institutions. Many in our society really love guns. Our Supreme Court, in laughably contorted interpretation of “well-regulated militia,” decided that being armed is a basic individual right. So clearly guns are not going away. Furthermore, any policy of confiscation would be largely viewed as a direct attempt to decrease citizens’ power, the remedy for which is [insert mental rim shot here] more guns!

So, we need to re-frame the issue. There are tradeoffs between individual freedom and the social costs incurred by exercise of such freedom. Generally we agree it is fair for the social costs of a freely-chosen activity to be folded into the activity itself and born largely by those who choose to engage in the activity. User-fee taxes are the best example of this. Thus smokers pay hefty tobacco taxes when they purchase their chosen product, the revenues of which defray at least a portion of the costs incurred by society because some people among us choose to smoke. Likewise, gasoline taxes at the pump are designated for upkeep of roads and bridges, which are costs incurred by society from the activities of drivers. We honor people’s right to engage in cost-incurring activities, but rightly expect that if costs are incurred from that activity, such costs be paid largely by those who choose to engage in the activity. Those who smoke a lot pay more tax for the privilege than those who smoke less. Those who buy lots of gasoline pay more tax than those who buy less. Generally speaking, we Americans prefer this to outright bans on harmful activities. “You can swing your arms all you want, but if you break someone’s nose, you pay the medical bill yourself!”

Rather than coercively eliminating guns, a better policy would be to recognize fully the rights of citizens to arm themselves, but also that exercise of this right entails very real costs to the society. Setting aside intangible costs (what dollar value can be assigned to people’s grief?) there are plenty of concrete costs incurred by current gun ethics in our country to give us a place to start–medical care for the wounded and payment for protection officers alone is already a significant sum. To this we might add the costs of a beefed up mental health and criminal justice system required if we are really serious about keeping guns out of the hands of some while fostering relatively free availability to everyone else.

A ballpark figure would not be difficult to establish for the costs incurred by society so that those among us who feel safer with guns can own more or less as many guns as they want and can afford. The next reasonable step is to assess an adequate users’-fee-tax, perhaps at the point when ammunition is purchased, designated to defray the social costs incurred by the misuse of such easily available weapons. Gun owners would then enjoy the freedom to decide how much or how little of that tax they want to pay, based on how much of the levied items they choose to purchase. Others in society would be at least somewhat eased of the burden of paying for the choice of gun owners to exercise their rights of gun ownership.

It seems Win/Win to me…


AT&T and the Yang Complex

January 10, 2013
"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

Have you noticed the recent AT&T commercials that feature an adult asking leading questions to children, questions that have “obvious” correct answers? Which is better, big or small? Which is better, fast or slow? These questions serve the purpose of the ad  but also reveal a disturbing aspect of our culture. The immediacy of the children’s answers and the “no kidding, duh” tenor of the commercial reveal a pretty unreflective public, at least in the view of the advertisement’s creators. If we pause for a second to apply the same questions to other subjects  such as cancer or melting glaciers, we get some different answers. Which cancer is better, big or small? What rate of glacial melt is preferable, fast or slow?

Besides revealing a dim view of the public, the ad’s popularity confirms the “truthiness” of that perception. In other words, the knee-jerk response critical for its effectiveness bespeaks our real world perception, our socially constructed reality. This is what I refer to as our “yang complex,” our western preference for the yang elements in the yin/yang dichotomy of Taoism. Yang roughly translates as “the sunny side,” and I am reminded of the American standard Keep on the Sunny Side. Yang qualities include fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry, and aggressive. It is associated with the male gender, the sun, sky, fire, and daytime. Yin roughly translates as “the shadow side.” Yin qualities include slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, and passive. It is associated with the female gender, the moon, earth, water, and nighttime.

The yang complex AT&T plays off of reminds me of the critique that  Ernest Becker offers of Norman O. Brown’s unrepressed man, the archetype for many similar New Age visions. AT&T’s approach puts us on the threshold of a very Beckerian question: “Which is better, repression or unrepression?” Rejecting this false dichotomy, Becker maintains that repression is necessary and it is the way in which the repression is managed that is crucial. As it stands, repression is a dirty word in our popular culture. Indeed, unrestraint is the premise of modern consumer culture. The yin qualities we need for balance are present but muted. I maintain that our cultural yang complex puts us in a dangerous position. Bigger, faster, and more more more have become the watchwords for a growth curve that is clearly unsustainable.

Yet, the lack of a yin perspective in our political discourse reveals the depth of the culture of yang. We appear unable to envision anything new, still opting for the obvious answers, just like the kids in the AT&T commercial. We need a new mythology, a new story that admits the insights of Becker, Rank, and Kierkegaard where the answers are not so obvious.